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The vexed question of whether the Tokyo Olympics should...

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The vexed question of whether the Tokyo Olympics should go ahead

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By Craig Ray
23 May 2021 0

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

Like many things in today’s world, the Olympic Games have become an overblown and painfully expensive exercise that often leaves host cities and countries wondering why they went to all the trouble in the first place.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The core values that underpinned the original modern Olympic movement in the late 19th century, which were based on fair competition and respect between athletes, have become secondary to modern society’s most essential core value – making money.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the organisation that “owns” the Summer and Winter Olympics as well as the Paralympics, among others, can only exist in the manner it has become accustomed to because of the billions it earns from the Games.

Like its footballing counterpart, Fifa, the IOC has grown into an organisation so powerful it can dictate policy to governments over by-laws and make ludicrous demands on cities hosting the Olympics.

For the IOC it is essential the Tokyo Olympics go ahead in the midst of a global pandemic because it cannot afford them not to. Although almost all of the costs of preparing the city to host the Olympics have been carried by Tokyo and the Japanese government, earnings largely go to the IOC.

TV rights and sponsorship contracts are held by the IOC and a portion of those are paid over to the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But only if the Olympics go ahead.

Japanese citizens are starting to show anger that their government is even considering staging the Olympics, starting in 10 weeks’ time, when the country is struggling under another Covid-19 wave. But money and prestige are on the line.

The vaccine roll-out in Japan has been slow, with several estimates suggesting that only 3% of the Japanese population has so far been vaccinated. That number will grow before the scheduled 23 July Olympics start, but a recent poll indicated that 80% of respondents want the Games cancelled.

As ever, the issue has become political, with the official opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, wanting the Games cancelled. It’s probably as much about making the incumbent government look bad as it is about the health and safety of citizens. 

But it’s not that simple

The IOC owns the Olympics. It is its exclusive property and according to the contract it has with the city of Tokyo, only it (the IOC) can make the decision to cancel the Olympic Games. It’s a staggering amount of power, for what is essentially a company, to hold over a sovereign nation.

There are, of course, clauses about the safety of athletes and if a decision to cancel is taken, the Japanese government could always tell the IOC to get lost if it comes to it. The legal ramifications of a dispute with the IOC might be a far lesser of two evils for the country of Japan.

Of course, the IOC might come under so much pressure in the coming weeks that it will have no choice but to cancel the Tokyo Olympics, which have already been postponed by a year. It could come down to a question of: Is one race worth the cost of one life? The answer is self-evident.

The IOC has insurance policies against the cancellation of the Olympics, although the original clauses probably relate to wars and acts of God and not pandemics. That eventuality has no doubt been addressed in the 13 months since the Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

Either way, it’s going to cost someone a lot of money if the Olympics don’t go ahead as scheduled. There are probably some very nervous insurance company executives hunched over spreadsheets right now. 

The other side

Amid the justified uncertainty and fear from Tokyo and Japanese citizens, the other side of the ledger indicates that the Olympics could be held in a reasonably secure environment.

Despite the Japanese government placing a ban earlier this year on any foreign fans from visiting the Games, Tokyo can still expect to welcome an estimated 60,000 athletes, coaches, officials, media and sponsor representatives to the city.

That’s a lot of influx into the city in a short time frame. There is no demand that Olympic competitors and officials have to be vaccinated either, although the organising committee has done a deal with pharmaceutical company Pfizer to administer the shot to athletes who want it. That’s naturally gone down badly, considering the slow rollout for Japanese citizens.

But those 60,000 will have to jump through a wide range of hoops to enter Japan, including submitting two negative Covid-19 tests before entry.

They will also have to hand over a detailed activity plan and a written pledge to stick to it. Once in Japan, athletes and officials will be tested daily and banned from using public transport, while media will be allowed on trains and buses after a 14-day quarantine.

A recent trial event was held in Tokyo earlier this month in which 700 athletes and 6,000 officials (mostly from Japan) took part in the same conditions under which the Olympics would take place, and there were no positive Covid-19 cases.

It’s also worth sparing a thought for the athletes. For many Olympic participants this is the pinnacle of their athletic careers and for most the chance will only come around once in a lifetime. For gymnasts, runners, field athletes, swimmers, rowers, sailors, weightlifters and many others, this is their moment.

This is what all the years of hard work, sacrifice and toil have been distilled into: 16 days of competition that come around so rarely. It would be cruel to take it away from them if every possible avenue to hold the Olympics hadn’t been exhausted.

Away from the power-grabbing suits, where money rules, the Olympics are about preparation, discipline, dedication, performance, excellence, competition and overcoming huge odds.

Those same traits are needed to ensure the Tokyo Olympics go ahead, and if they don’t, like athletes who don’t win a medal, decision-makers must be able to say that it wasn’t for lack of effort. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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